Ruh Roh. Universe may not be what we thought it was.

Astronomers have discovered something that should not be there. It is an arc of light. The arc is the effect of gravitational lensing which happened as light passed by a massive galaxy about 10 billion years ago in space-time. In other words, in this universe, but very far away and a very long time ago, when our universe was a mere toddler. The galaxy that supplies the light is even farther away.

(UPDATE: See this post by Phil Plait for a detailed writup on this observation: The galaxy that shouldn’t be there)

Here’s the problem. A very massive galaxy…the one that is farthest away…over 10 billion years away in space time is an anomaly, and a galaxy massive enough to create this lensing is also an anomaly. According to the leader of the team that glimpsed this galactic puzzle, “According to a statistical analysis, arcs should be extremely rare at that distance. At that early epoch, the expectation is that there are not enough galaxies behind the cluster bright enough to be seen, even if they were ‘lensed,’ or distorted by the cluster. The other problem is that galaxy clusters become less massive the further back in time you go. So it’s more difficult to find a cluster with enough mass to be a good lens for gravitationally bending the light from a distant galaxy.”

So, is this just something that can exist but is very very rare and these scientists just happen to see it? Or is it the case that the models of the early Universe are somehow in need of adjustment.

Now the astrophysicists know what it’s like to be an astrobiologist!

More from NASA:

The surprise in this Hubble observation is spotting a galaxy lensed by an extremely distant cluster. Dubbed IDCS J1426.5+3508, the cluster is the most massive found at that epoch, weighing as much as 500 trillion suns. It is 5 to 10 times larger than other clusters found at such an early time in the history of the universe. The team spotted the cluster in a search using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in combination with archival optical images taken as part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s Deep Wide Field Survey at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, Tucson, Ariz. The combined images allowed them to see the cluster as a grouping of very red galaxies, indicating they are far away.

This unique system constitutes the most distant cluster known to “host” a giant gravitationally lensed arc. Finding this ancient gravitational arc may yield insight into how, during the first moments after the Big Bang, conditions were set up for the growth of hefty clusters in the early universe.

The arc was spotted in optical images of the cluster taken in 2010 by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The infrared capabilities of Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 helped provide a precise distance, confirming it to be one of the farthest clusters yet discovered.

Once the astronomers determined the cluster’s distance, they used Hubble, the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy (CARMA) radio telescope, and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to independently show that the galactic grouping is extremely massive.

“The chance of finding such a gigantic cluster so early in the universe was less than one percent in the small area we surveyed,” said team member Mark Brodwin of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “It shares an evolutionary path with some of the most massive clusters we see today, including the Coma cluster and the recently discovered El Gordo cluster.”

An analysis of the arc revealed that the lensed object is a star-forming galaxy that existed 10 billion to 13 billion years ago. The team hopes to use Hubble again to obtain a more accurate distance to the lensed galaxy.

The team’s results are described in three papers, which will appear online today and will be published in the July 10, 2012 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. …

Image and press release from NASA

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